Op/Ed - Hollywood's Got Saturday Morning Fever

After mining classic television shows and comic books for every last possible box-office dollar, the film industry has turned its adaptive attention toward trampling the final frontier of Nostalgia Land: Saturday Morning TV.

The latest example is the recent news that Universal Pictures signed off on a live-action film based on Sid & Marty Krofft’s psychedelic 70’s puppet-fest “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.”

Sigmund isn’t the only Krofft creation making a big-screen breakthrough. Sony has “H.R. Pufnstuff” set up on its lot, and Universal also has the “Land of the Lost” movie starring Will Ferrell coming out next June.

With a Smurfy animated film based on those three-apples-high Belgian dudes “The Smurfs” on the way in 2010, and projects based on golden oldies such as Jonny Quest, He-Man and G.I. Joe in the works, about all the multiplex needs to replicate Saturday mornings of yesterday are commercials for Sugar Smacks and Cocoa Pebbles.

What’s next? The Great Space Coaster: The Return of Gnu? Yapple Dapple: The Adventures of Jeannie and Babu?

What in the name of Captain Caveman is going on here?!?

With the movie industry in the middle of a years-long dry spell for original scripts with franchise potential, Hollywood is predictably cribbing from the past, hoping childhood memories will lead a stampede of nostalgic moviegoers to the box office.

After “The Flintstones” scored huge returns in 1994, practically every show in TV Land was optioned for the big screen, with decidedly mixed results (see my earlier column on TV remakes).

After “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” blew up, studio types discovered the comic book movie goldmine, which they haven’t stopped tapping since.

While riding the spandexed coattails of superheroes seems like a no-brainer move, Saturday morning TV is far from a sure thing. Reason No.1 being that most of those shows we 30-somethings hold in such high regard, from that early 1970s to mid-80s period considered the Golden Age of Kid TV, well…they simply weren’t very good.

Hold your flames, message-boarders. If you look beyond that protective nostalgic veneer we wrap so protectively around our favorite childhood programs, you’ll see I’m right.

I love the Sleestak as much as anyone, but “Land of the Lost” doesn’t hold up very well. Matter of fact, none of the Krofft shows has aged well, not even my beloved Pufnstuff (don’t even get me started on The Bugaloos).

And so it doesn’t seem like I’m picking only on Sid and Marty, that not-aging-well argument goes for most of Saturday AM shows, except for the early, pre-Scrappy “Scooby Doo Mysteries” and Thundarr the Barbarian (my first exposure to a dystopian future still compels me to watch every time it comes on Boomerang).

Too often, we simply judge these programs on the memories they evoke, taking us back to that magical time known as childhood.

“Most of the shows we watched as kids only hold a lot of value for us because we watched them as kids,” says Timothy Burke, pop culture professor at Swarthmore College and co-author of “Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up with Cartoon Culture.” “In the cold light of day, they're pretty awful, or the good, creative material in them are struggling to get out from underneath cheapness and bad dictates from anxious network flacks and hack producers,” Burke added.

The steady release of DVD collections of these old shows proves nostalgia does sell. But trying to capitalize on that with a movie version can be tricky.

You can try to take it seriously, but then how do you address the fact that a village full of male Smurfs have one Smurfette to share?

“The challenge with recreating a classic Saturday morning show is that if you want to capture the vibe of the show then what you’re doing is automatically a bit dated,” says Entertainment Weekly editor-at-large Dave Karger. “If you want to update it with amazing special effects, then you run the risk of completely straying from what made the original so great.”

Professor Burke agrees. He says there are really only two ways to approach a revival of an old Saturday morning property.

“Play it for postmodern laughs or spruce the property up with new production values, characterizations, and narrative turns while trying to retain something of whatever made it special or fun. It's clear that you can succeed either way,” Burke says. “The first "Brady Bunch" film was a good example of the first strategy. The recent 'Transformers' film, though I didn't think all that much of it, is probably a good example of the latter strategy.”

Despite its flaws, Michael Bay’s hit film is quite possibly the textbook example of how to introduce an old property to a new generation. It kept enough of the original to satisfy the diehards, while modernizing the concept to the point that it welcomes new and younger fans.

Karger, who admits to watching more MTV than cartoons as a young’un, says filmmakers have to be willing to leave the past behind – and possibly alienating some of the loyalists – to ensure future success.

There have been a few success stories to give studios hope. The two “Scooby-Doo” movies, which were tailored to affectionately poke fun at the original show’s ridiculous premise, were big enough hits that a third film is being released straight-to-DVD this fall.

“Fat Albert” in 2004 also did well financially, although I doubt fans of the beloved original series hold it in very high regard.

But is the demand out there to support a big-budget remake of the likes of “Jonny Quest?” Universal has $100 million riding on its “Land of the Lost” movie, which Will Ferrell says will be more straightforward family adventure, and not a spoof. To which the question must be asked…who really wants to see Ron Burgundy in a family adventure?

Some of our favorite childhood TV shows have earned their rightful place in the Hall of Fame of our memories – and that’s exactly where they should remain. I own DVD box set collections of shows such as “Birdman and the Galaxy Trio” and “Jem” but that doesn’t mean I’ll be starting an online petition for a live-action Truly Outrageous musical film (and while “Jem” was a syndicated show, in some markets it ran on Saturday mornings).

Hollywood may want to tread carefully before green-lighting that big-budget film version of Dynomutt or Hong Kong Phooey. Nostalgia can only go so far.

Of course, if someone wants to finally put out that Thundarr complete series DVD, I certainly won’t complain.

(When he’s not watching reruns of Super friends and the Laffalympics, Michael Avila is the producer for the nationally syndicated movie show “REEL TALK” with Jeffrey Lyons and Alison Bailes. Check local listings @ www.reeltalktv.com)

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